It was Christine, Stephen King’s 1983 novel about a 1958 Plymouth Fury possessed by its dead owner, that made me a writer. I read it during the fall of 1983, my freshman year in high school. It wasn’t the first of King’s works I’d read; the previous summer, I’d checked Cujo out of the local library; before that, some time in seventh grade, I think, the little Scholastic literary magazine we received every month had reprinted King’s story, “Battleground” (edited, as you can imagine, for language [though not, as I recall, for violence]). I had read Cujo in part because Patty Taylor, with whom I’d gone to St. Columba elementary school for a number of years, possibly as early as first grade, had been a die-hard King fan for at least a couple of years, possibly longer, and her devotion had made an impression on me, made me think I should have a look at one of King’s books. There was also the sense that King was a more grown-up writer than I had been used to; I wasn’t sure in what way, but my parents, who hadn’t read him, expressed concern that he might be too mature for me (which, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize meant they were worried there might be a lot of bad language in his fiction).
What a cover, eh?
I’m not sure why I slipped Cujo from the library shelves; maybe it sounded less out and out intimidating than some of the other books? Whatever the reason, I didn’t connect with the book. I didn’t hate it; I just found the portrayal of its protagonists’ troubled marriage foreign emotional territory. It wasn’t enough to put me off King altogether, though, which was why, later in the fall, when the paperback edition of Christine was released, I picked up a copy at the local Book & Record. And man, what a difference. I’ve talked in previous interviews about the way the book spoke to my bleeding adolescent heart, my sense of myself as an outsider, self-consciously smart, a nerd, a comic book fan, a teacher’s pet, as far from athletic as it seemed possible to be, as well as the manner in which the book’s villains embodied my caricatured sense of the kids who mocked and picked on me, the jocks and the more affluent students. Don’t get me wrong: even at the time, I understood that both the novel’s heroes and its villains were more exaggerated than both myself and my high school nemeses actually were. But the book cut to the emotional core of my nascent high school experience with astonishing power. Not to mention, the supernatural elements, which were as over the top and extravagant as anything I’d read in Robert E. Howard or Lloyd Alexander, and which culminated in a battle against the evil car that deliberately invoked the clash between a mounted knight and a monster, a dragon. I read that book, and I loved it, and I would read it again and then a third time; before I was done with that first reading, however, I knew that this, writing, writing like this, was what I had to do.
That experience, of feeling yourself selected, picked out by a work of art to make similar art, is one that fascinates me. You don’t find it in every writer’s biography; although Lovecraft talked about it in relation to Poe, and Ramsey Campbell in relation to Lovecraft, and King himself has spoken of it in relation both to Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. It’s a sensation I’ve continued to experience over the years, every time I sit down with King’s latest novel or collection of stories, a combination of engagement and inspiration, a re-connection to what feels like one of the wellsprings of my own creativity. It’s funny: for reasons I can’t quite remember now, I was thinking the other day about the books I’ve continued to re-read over the years. It’s a strange list: The Good Soldier, The Great Gatsby, My Mortal Enemy, Great Expectations, The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness, Ghost Story, and Koko are some of the titles on it, as are Pet Sematary, The Shining, Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and Danse Macabre (I quote that last one all the time). It says something profound to me about King’s work that it’s capable of sustaining that kind of repeated attention.
At the end of Christine, there’s the suggestion that the evil car has not been truly defeated, that it’s on its way for the novel’s protagonist. It’s meant to be an unsettling image, and it is, but it’s the one I want to close this short birthday appreciation with, a figure for King’s ongoing importance to me and to so many other writers. If it’s a little sinister, I’m sure he’d be fine with that.